Apr 15, 2024

William McCrum: Trinity’s Forgotten Sporting Hero

Matthew Keeley explores Trinity's surprising sporting legacy, spotlighting the alumnus who invented the penalty kick

Matthew KeeleyStaff Wrtier

Trinity College Dublin. When you first read those words, what comes to mind? History? Tradition? Paul Mescal’s mickey in Normal People? Whatever perceptions you may have of Ireland’s oldest university, you almost certainly would not automatically associate it with sporting excellency. Indeed, a quick glance at the Wikipedia page for Trinity alumni shows a distinct sparsity under the “Sports” category. As great as Stoker, Wilde and Beckett were in their pomp, they have not a single Six Nations medal between them. In fact, I’m willing to go as far as to assume that none of them have even won a Leinster Senior Cup. 

Alack, Trinity must concede a superior sporting history to another university south of the Liffey which, for the benefit of readers and this writer alike, shall remain nameless. While conducting vitally important research for this top rate piece of sports journalism, I had the displeasure of paying a visit to said university. Pitches stretched on for as far as the eye could see, interspersed with basketball courts, tennis courts and what I am reliably informed was a GAA pitch. Thus, it is little surprise that the place seems to churn out rugby players like a conveyor belt in a meat factory. 

Nonetheless, after throwing myself down a deep, albeit tremendously rewarding Wikipedia rabbit hole in the honest name of student journalism, I discovered one particularly remarkable Trinity sporting alum. His name may be almost completely forgotten by time, but at the turn of the 20th century he made one of the most important contributions to the greatest sport there is, association football. His name was William McCrum, and he was the esteemed inventor of the penalty kick. 


Now, Mr. McCrum was a curious fellow to say the least. Indeed, to call him a sportsman may be a somewhat charitable description. He was a goalkeeper for Milford Football Club in Armagh and competed in the first ever season of the Irish Football League, 1890-91. By the end of this particular season, Milford finished bottom of the league with 0 points from 14 games with “Master Willie”, as he was known by locals, conceding 62 goals.  

Bizarrely, William McCrum was also simultaneously a member of the Irish Football Association during this time. While in the role, he proposed the concept of the penalty kick to stop the prevalent practice of defenders intentionally fouling attacking players to prevent a goal. The idea was initially met with ridicule amongst players and the press, who termed it the “Irishman’s motion”. McCrum’s suggestion that defenders may act unsportingly starkly contrasted the popular Victorian image of the gentleman amateur sportsman. General opinion would soon change after an 1891 FA Cup game between Stoke City and Notts County saw a deliberate handball on the goal line, à la Luis Suarez in the 2010 World Cup. The blatant foul was met by a mere indirect freekick, which would go unconverted.  

Galvanised by the injustice of this event and several similar incidents across the country, the penalty kick would become rule 13 of the initial “Laws of the Game”, having been approved by the International Football Association Board in 1891.  Hence, without the contribution of a Trinity College alum, Harry Kane wouldn’t have a World Cup Golden Boot and Bruno Fernandes would be on the dole. But what happened to dear Mr. McCrum after he gifted the penalty kick to the world?

Well, unfortunately, he would subsequently lead quite the life of hardship and misery. The heir to a linen manufacturing empire, his Wikipedia page states that William was well known for “having a good time”. He once accumulated a six-figure gambling debt in a Monte Carlo casino, which had to be paid off by his father (we’ve all been there).  William’s wife, Maude, was also known to have been involved in more than the occasional extramarital affairs and was paid an allowance by William’s father on the condition that she didn’t divorce him (again, we’ve all been there). 

Following both his father’s death and the Wall Street Crash, the McCrum family fortunes were completely obliterated, and the entire contents of their old manor house were sold in auction. William died, almost destitute, in 1932 at the age of 67. Despite having never played a single minute of professional sport in his life, he remains Trinity College Dublin’s most prominent and influential alum within the sporting world. 

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